13th April 1997

Agree to agree to agree...

A discord in accord

By Rajpal Abeynayake

The accord that failed: signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord

Accords fail.” This is how the late departed Lalith Athulathmudali referred to the Indo Sri Lankan accord, and the “accord’’ he signed with a con-man from the JVP. The latter agreement failed the day after. The Indo-Lanka accord showed more promise, but as we know, that particular agreement failed as well.

If accords fail, what can be made of the hoopla that is now being generated over the so-called agreement between the government and the main opposition, the UNP, on the ethnic issue.

First and foremost, the agreement is not actually an agreement, it is an agreement to agree. The two main protagonists in the Sri Lankan political discourse, who usually cannot even agree to disagree, have now agreed to agree. It’s very chic, to begin with.

From what can be culled from the diplomatic language in the statements issued after the historic(sic) agreement was reached, the UNP has agreed to honour, when it comes to power, any plans made by the incumbent government to arrive at a solution to the ethnic crisis. The UNP has also sworn by what is called a bi-partisan approach to a solution to the same issue.

It is easy to agree in the abstract, but now it is worthwhile asking what will happen when the parties are required to agree in the concrete. What’s significant about the accord between the government and the opposition is the fact that there are no specifics that both parties are agreeing on, vis-a-vis the ethnic conflict. It is from the looks of it, a scout,s honour to cooperate.

How much does a scout’s honour count in today’s political environment? How much does a gentleman’s agreement count in today’s political environment, which the President herself has described as an environment of “politics sans gentlemen?’’ If there are no gentlemen in politics, why are the people asked to repose so much faith and confidence in a “gentleman’s agreement?”

That’s puzzling, but what’s more important is that an agreement without any specifics is basically a non-event. Such non-events have taken place previously, if one takes a keen look at the way in which the ethnic crisis has progressed. Thimpu was a non-event. The Hilton conference may have been an event, but as far as real progress was concerned, it was a non-event as well.

It would have been much better if the opposition and the government agreed on certain specifics, such as the devolution proposals. But, there seems to be some confusion on whether there was any agreement on the proposals themselves. But, let us assume there was such agreement. What political weight could be attached to such a “tentative’’ agreement to push through the devolution package? Do we assume that the UNP will agree when it comes to the crunch, and when the proposals are to be pushed past the legislative barricades?

At that point, if that point ever arrives, couldn’t both parties take refuge in the “gray areas” that result from “an agreement to agree.” If the history of political behavior in this country is taken into consideration , that’s more probable than not. Which is why it is wise to consider non-events as non-events despite the hoopla and the artificial euphoria that is created , for various reasons, around such non events.

This kind of approach of course opens those who take such views to being attacked as unpatriotic rascals who do not see a good thing when it happens. But, being cynical is not a crime — these days, it is like a survival kit. Though words can be bandied about, agreements always get bogged down in the details, because we are dealing with complex problems. Sure, these complex problems are made more complex by chauvinists, opportunists and extremists on all sides. But, all of these factors necessarily have to be taken into consideration in the equation. Vague genralsiations about a “bi-partisan approach” are beautiful, but do such generalisations count when it comes to the nitty-gritties of units of devolution, merges of provinces etc.? Or at that point, are we to say that there is no accord, even though the intentions are there? Are we to say the wedding can’t take place, even though both parties have agreed to get married?

Perhaps an exchange of letters makes good public relations, especially in an international context. Hence, one can’t possibly fault Mr. Kadirgamar for being in a very sanguine mood about the whole affair. But, if people are not too enthused, it is because they know that no crisis is solved by agreeing to agree on a future date. That’s no contract. As accords go, its an accord that can be easily broken, and as the late Lalith Athulathmudali said, any accord can fail in any case.

However, no exchange of letters can be ignored. We merely have to put such an exchange in its proper context and perspective. Yes, its news that there has been an exchange of letters. Contextually, its news that deserves about ten lines—maybe three paragraphs at the most.

It would be a more fruitful exercise if the UNP and the PA issued separate signed statements on what points they agreed on and on what points they disagreed on, with regard to the devolution package. Then, the people are bound to know where their leaders really stand. Besides, that seems to be more like what the people deserve in a political environment in which — generally —anything goes.

Go to the Jungle Telegraph

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to Rajpal's Column Archive